The website of the Florida Panthers billed it as the “RETURN OF VOKOUN,” the first time Washington Capitals netminder Tomas Vokoun would return to the building that was his home rink for four seasons.
However, defying expectations and playing a hunch, new Caps head coach chose to start Michal Neuvirth in net instead of Vokoun for the Monday night matchup.
Hunter’s hunch was wrong.
Neuvirth allowed 5 goals on 30 Florida shots as Washington fell 5-4 in the divisional matchup. Mike Knuble, Cody Eakin, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera scored for the Caps, while Stephen Weiss struck twice and Mike Santorelli, Dmitry Kulikov, and Sean Bergenehim all scored for the Panthers. Rarely-used backup Scott Clemmensen made 28 saves to earn his third win of the season.
At one point the score was 5-1, as the Panthers dominated Washington through the first 40 minutes of the game. Hunter’s squad made a furious comeback beginning with Eakin’s goal in the waning seconds of the second period, but it was too little, too late, and the close score only masks the lack of compete level demonstrated by the Caps through much of the game.
Washington entered the game in an odd position, looking up to Florida in the Southeast Division standings, and the result only confirmed the new order of the division.
Washington had trouble finding its spark early on, and the Panthers took advantage of a spate of first period penalties to stake out a three-goal lead.
Weiss, who centers the red-hot top line for Florida, opened the scoring seven minutes in with a shot from the point that deflected off Dennis Wideman’s stick and past Neuvirth.
Before anyone on the visitor’s bench could even process Weiss’s goal, Santorelli doubled the lead 13 seconds later on a weak snapshot from the right halfboards.
Half a period later, Kulikov’s slapshot from the right point on the power play added to his team’s lead. Kulikov’s mark came on the power play, enabled when Caps defenseman John Erskine challenged Florida’s Bracken Kearns to a fight after a particularly vicious but legal hit by Kearns on Jeff Halpern. Erskine earned a two-minute minor and ten-minute misconduct for instigating the fight, in addition to the actual five-minute major for fighting, robbing Washington of a steady, physical defenseman for nearly an entire period.
After a slapshot by Mike Knuble on the Caps rush beat Clemmensen on the near side to put Washington on the board 40 seconds after Kulikov’s marker, Florida regrouped during the first intermission and responded with two more goals in the first half of the second frame.
When Dmitri Orlov committed a slashing penalty immediately after Washington killed a Karl Alzner penalty at the start of the middle period, Bergenheim picked up a loose puck and scored on a wraparound for Florida’s third power play goal of the game. The Panthers were 3-6 on the power play, while the Caps were scoreless with five shots on two power plays.
Not content to rest on their laurels, the Panthers made the deficit 5-1 when Weiss took advantage of a deflection off a shot by former Capital Tomas Fleischmann and an overcommital by Neuvirth to slot the puck into a wide open net with 12:11 left in the second.
Eakin jump-started Washington’s comeback with a nifty wrist shot on a pass from Mathieu Perreault across the slot late in the period.
Florida mostly weathered the Caps’ attack during the third period–Washington out-shot the Panthers 13-6 over the course of the final 20 minutes-but Laich took a pass from Joel Ward cutting into the zone, and then took advantage of a screen by Chimera to zip the puck past Chimera with under eight minutes left in regulation.
Chimera brought things within one goal when he tipped John Carlson’s shot under Clemmensen with just over two minutes left in regulation, but a furious attack by Washington, with an extra skater, in the last 40 seconds of the period was unable to find the back of the net, and the Caps left Sunrise, Florida with another mark in the “Loss” column.